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A girl writes with a pen.

A major goal of the writing initiative is to teach students how to vary their content and writing styles to fit the occasion.

The write way to learn

New Baccalaureate Writing Initiative to be essential for every student

by Deane Morrison

From M, fall 2006; updated March 21, 2007

Today's instant communications often leave writing clarity-not to mention elegance-in the dust. To help its graduates reach their full potential, the Twin Cities campus has launched a Baccalaureate Writing Initiative to make writing an essential element of every student's education and to turn the University into a national model for the study and practice of writing. It is part of the University's drive to crack the ranks of the top three public research universities within a decade. Under the initiative, writing will be woven into all areas of study to give students a feel for how to write in a variety of contexts and for different audiences. "We had a lot of comments from employers who said new graduates, because of the effect of e-mail and other digital technologies like instant messaging, have adopted an informal style that's not always appropriate for workplace communications," says Laura Gurak, head of the rhetoric department and co-chair of the strategic positioning task force on writing that recommended the initiative. Also, "Some of my students don't have a sense of audience and purpose. They might be assigned to write about a topic for a general audience, and they write for a more technical audience." Central to the initiative is a plan to consolidate writing courses and scholars of writing in a new department within the College of Liberal Arts (CLA). It will include the rhetoric department faculty, writing faculty from the former General College, English department faculty who focus on writing and new faculty who study such areas as writing theory and pedagogy. A new freshman composition program will draw on courses from CLA, General College, and rhetoric. "We want to create a unit with national and international distinction in teaching and research," says Vice Provost Craig Swan. The task force has proposed that faculty in each major define the writing requirements and needs for their students. Provost Tom Sullivan has named an implementation committee to put the plans into operation for the 2007-08 school year. "The idea is that faculty will think through the kinds of writing appropriate for students and designate courses where that takes place so students will have an idea of how to link writing, research, thinking and reading as they go through their majors," says English professor Donald Ross, who co-chaired the writing task force. The task force has also proposed ending exemptions from freshman composition for students with strong writing skills and placing them in a more advanced composition course. Students who need extra help, especially nonnative speakers of English, will receive it throughout their University careers. While the emphasis on writing will mean more work for students, it will likely sharpen their thinking and understanding of the subjects they study. "In senior exit surveys, students who do more writing report more satisfaction with their undergraduate experience," says Swan. "I think it reflects their deeper engagement with their learning."

RELATED READING Innovative U of M writing-enriched curriculum program receives a Bush Foundation grant of nearly $1 million (March 19, 2007)